Norway plays host to the third round of the World Rally Championship, which starts on Friday in Lillehammer in south east Norway, the first time the country has featured at this level of the competition.
It is a fitting tribute to the rally-mad country, where the sport is as popular as in neighbouring countries, Sweden and Finland.
Norway’s hopes will be pinned on local heroes, brothers Henning and Petter Solberg. Henning, who drives for the Stobart-Ford team, is currently sixth in the Championship, with five points, while Petter, of Subaru, (left) is ninth with three points.
Henning, the older of the two, has had a reputation of being something of a spectacular driver to watch, his cars often showing the signs of manic sprints through the various stages.
However, this time out, he has pledged to be me a more measured driver, playing for points, rather than his hallmark “do-or-die” approach.
The strategy has already paid dividends, with a respectable fourth position in last week’s Swedish Rally.
Now Henning is hoping to go one better and land a podium position and he is quietly confident about what he needs to do over the three-day event. “We went to Sweden with the plan of a top-five finish there and hopefully a podium in Norway,” he said.
“Now I am halfway there, I will be really trying to go well and aiming for the podium place. The car feels really good and I am happy with everything. I can’t wait to get started.”
Inevitably, Henning is in the shadow of Petter, who won the world championship in 2003 and whom he has backed to win the Norway event But that does not put him off. “I know there will be a lot of spectators out there cheering me on.”
The spectacular snow-covered hills of the Lillehammer area will be the backdrop for the Norwegian rally and some of the special stages will utilise facilities from the Winter Olympics in 1994. The main service centre will be the “Viking Ship”, a huge building, shaped like an upturned Viking boat.
It is from here that the last-minute tactics will be planned and these highly expensive cars prepared for the stages.
While the Solbergs will be the local favourites, they will have to contend with some of the other top drivers, who will not be daunted by the home support.
France’s Sebastien Loeb, last year’s champion, and Sweden’s Marcus Gronheim, first and second in the standings, will be resuming their highly competitive battle to take this year’s crown.
Rally Norway – 16th-18th February
Gallagher flies the flag for Ireland in ‘rookie’ trophy
Away from the glitter and the high life that personifies the world of the top rally stars, lies an altogether different environment, the Junior Championship, which takes place at the same time as its senior counterpart, adds Eamonn Rafferty.
This is seen as the “nursery” for a full-time, works drive but, befitting such a competitive sport, few make it through to the big time.
As in many of today’s sports, competitors are becoming younger and if you haven’t had your first “power-slide” by the time you are 15, then the chances are that you have missed the boat.
Irishman Shaun Gallagher (left) is one of this year’s hopefuls in the Junior Championship, driving a Citroen C2R2 for World Rally Team Ireland.
Gallagher, from Donegal, started rallying full time at the age of 17, and works as an instructor, appropriately enough, at a winter rally school in Norway.
Citroen has produced the C2R2 model specifically to meet the “rookie trophy” requirements, which means that, while the car is not as powerful as its Super 1600 cousin the C2, it will still benefit from Citroen’s suspension and development expertise. Drivers must be 28 years or younger at the start of the calendar year.
Gallagher said: “We’re hoping to perform well here in Norway and in the subsequent rounds, and it’s my hope that it will rally the Irish public behind our own rallying talent.
“There’s a growing interest in rallying in Ireland, especially with the World Championships coming (to Donegal) in November for the first time. It’s an exciting year for me as an Irish driver to be competing at world level and to be able to do so in my home country, and indeed my home county is a dream come true.”